This week, an attack by a walking corpse, and a coming-of-age novel set in Barbados.
Tommy: The Gun That Changed America by Karen Blumenthal (Roaring Brook) - The Thompson rapid-firing submachine gun is the crux of Blumenthal’s accessible social history, which encompasses military weaponry, gangster warfare, and gun-control legislation. A chronicle of the development and manufacturing of the Tommy gun, designed by army ordnance officer John T. Thompson for use in WWI trench warfare, leads into an engrossing and grisly account of the gun’s use as “the trademark weapon of Chicago’s bad boys” (rival bootlegging gangs) during Prohibition. In one of several ironic twists, Blumenthal notes that, unlike pistols or revolvers, the larger and more lethal Tommy gun was not covered by concealed-weapons laws, and could be easily purchased at sporting goods and hardware stores. The pace further accelerates with the appearance of brazen Depression-era armed bandits, most notably John Dillinger, whose capture became J. Edgar Hoover’s top priority. Mug shots and graphic crime scene photos highlight the lawlessness of the period, while an epilogue discussing comparatively recent shootings and legislation emphasizes that the questions raised by the appearance of weapons like the Tommy gun are far from resolved.
I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955-1997 edited by Bill Morgan (City Lights) - Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti will forever be linked as the respective writer and publisher of Howl, and this irresistible collection of their correspondence shows the depth of their friendship and working relationship. The letters, many previously unpublished, cover such matters as the deletion of Lucien Carr’s name from the dedication of Howl and William Burroughs’s censorship issues, which prompt Ferlinghetti to write that publishing Naked Lunch would be “indulging in... premeditated legal lunacy.” Ginsberg discusses his self-doubt, financial difficulties, and efforts to help his friends get published, not to mention such entertaining escapades as trying laughing gas. Ferlinghetti discusses editing anthologies, making a stab at writing plays, and running City Lights Bookstore, including an instance when poet Gregory Corso broke into the store and stole money. These details should interest even casual readers, but devotees will find most rewarding the book’s central revelation: that while Ginsberg was Beat Poetry’s face, Ferlinghetti was its hero, the key to so many great writers’ success.
The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson (Penguin Press) - Jackson's debut novel is a bittersweet coming-of-age tale of heartbreak and loss. Dionne and Phaedra, 16 and 10, are two sisters who go to Barbados in the summer of 1989, in the care of their grandmother Hyacinth, when their depressed mother is no longer able to take care of them in New York. Dionne acts out and meets boys, while Phaedra immerses herself in her grandmother's world. When their circumstances suddenly change and dictate a more permanent stay in Barbados, the girls are angry and confused. Their unfamiliar situation is further compounded by the reappearance of their long-gone father. He presents a chance to return to America, if they can trust him, and if they choose to leave their grandmother. Jackson's story becomes stronger and stronger as we get to know these characters. The themes she touches on—mental illness, immigration, motherhood, sexual awakening—are potent and deftly juggled, anchored in the vivid locale of Bird Hill yet universally relatable. Readers will be turning the pages to follow Phaedra and Dionne's memorable journey.
Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older (Scholastic/Levine) - In Older’s (Half-Resurrection Blues) YA debut, Sierra Santiago is from Bedford-Stuyvesant, parties in Park Slope, and crashes Columbia University with ease. Sierra’s roots in her neighborhood are three generations deep, but no part of the city is alien to her. She loves art, and painting a mural on an abandoned building is the focus of her summer. Abruptly, her stroke-disoriented grandfather urges her to hurry the project—and then she is attacked by what looks like a walking corpse. What follows is a well-executed plot of the exceptional child with a mysterious history standing forth to save her world, aided by a similarly gifted romantic interest. What makes Older’s story exceptional is the way Sierra belongs in her world, grounded in family, friends, and an awareness of both history and change. Her goal is to go deeper into that history and, by so doing, effect change of her own. Sierra’s masterful adaptability is most apparent in her language, which moves among English and Spanish, salsa and rap, formality and familiarity with an effortlessness that simultaneously demonstrates Older’s mastery of his medium
Local Girls by Caroline Zancan (Riverhead) - Zancan's promising debut chronicles the end of a longtime friendship as remembered in flashbacks by 19-year-old Maggie, who's having drinks in a Florida dive bar in the company of two female friends and Sam, a movie star who happens by. After watching the trio trade barbs with some young women from the posh side of town, Sam takes a shine to them: Maggie is ambivalently pregnant, Lindsey is dating someone else's boyfriend, and Nina, despite being sassy and full of personality, is stuck in her mother's house, teaching the odd workout class at the gym. Then in walks Lila, leading Maggie to remember how Lila and Nina were once close friends. Nina and Lila meet as little kids in their working-class neighborhood and begin the sort of intense female friendship that can't be infiltrated by the rest of the clique. It continues even when Lila's dad strikes it rich and Lila recruits another member, Max, an eccentric but charming boy from her new expensive private school, to join their group. Things begin to unravel among Max, Nina, and Lila once Nina begins a prank war, culminating in the undoing of their close-knit unit.